As the houselights dimmed, a rapt, multi-generational audience filled nearly every seat for opening night of the current Laguna Playhouse production. “King of the Road: The Roger Miller Story.”
The anticipation rose when Jesse Johnson as Roger Miller strode onto the stage, designed to resemble a 1960s television studio about to air “The Roger Miller Show.” Vintage signage prompting the audience to applaud appeared superfluous as Johnson broke into the iconic Miller song and the play’s namesake. “Trailers for sale or rent, rooms to let 50 cents. No phone, no pool, no pets, I ain’t got no cigarettes…”
A ratty little statue of a hobo inspired him to write the song later covered by a small army including Dean Martin and Alvin and the Chipmunks. Country singer Jody Miller (no relation) transmogrified it into the ditty, “Queen of the House.”
Johnson does not as much play the musician singer-songwriter of the country genre but embodies him. He sings and wisecracks in a pace and style that genuinely reflects the era and the direction of former Playhouse artistic director Andrew Barnicle.
Johnson gives his character touches of his own panache, reportedly having been in bands since his teens. He performs 20 songs with varying themes and styles, and discerning ears might detect bits of mountain, hillbilly and honky tonk.
Miller was born in Texas and brought up in Erick, Okla., where his hard-scrabble upbringing was leavened by learning to play the guitar and fiddle and finding his voice in song writing. His music reflects those regional sensibilities including a wry Okie sense of humor (“It took me 20 years to become an overnight success) and poetic aptitude attained during long walks to a one-room school.
His career culminated in his writing the music to Tony award winning “Big River,” an adaptation of Mark Twain’s “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”
Throughout successes and failures, Miller can’t separate himself from his past, including his mother abandoning him during the Depression and missteps fueled by self-pity and an inability to connect with people, especially women, until later in life.
Note the long-suffering Thumbs, his music director and faithful sidekick, played by Trevor Wheetman. It turns out that Johnson and Wheetman are friends in real life, having grown up together in Colorado.
Johnson is the son of Don Johnson and Patti D’Arbanville, and Wheetman’s father performed with John Denver. The duet of Miller and Thumbs, “Old Friends,” transposes friendship from one lifetime to another.
With music arranged by Omor D. Brancato, the band cooks, as they used to say. The arc of Miller’s life, one of pain and heartbreak, success and failure, love and hope, is sure to resonate with diverse audiences.
Written by Cort Casady and Miller’s third wife, Mary, they give dimension to their protagonist in the form of a young Miller played by Braxton Baker. Miller’s handsome alter-ego serves as a sort of psychological Sancho Panza, reminding the audience that Miller’s path, just like everyone else’s, has been carved by choices.
Prairie-bred grit prevails, even when Miller loses his show, with booze, pills and broads having gotten the better of him. He hits the road again to keep on writing and playing. A sequence describing a dry period after the birth of his first child, which prompted him into a stint as a volunteer fire fighter, is hilarious. “I put out one chicken coop fire and slept through the second…”
The story touches on the entertainer’s life as philandering husband of two wives and the more or less absentee father of their kids.
“Dang Me” is a humorous form of self-recrimination and a later, more mournful number “Husbands and Wives” in 1966 foreshadows John Gray’s 1992 book “Men are from Mars.”
Altogether Miller bagged 11 Grammys, six of those in one year. Think “Chug A Lug,” “Do-Wacka-Do.” Humor mixed with self-doubt rises in “In the Summertime (You Don’t Want my Love) and “The Moon is High and So am I.”
The demise of Miller’s first two marriages does not surprise. On the road, sometimes successful, sometimes not, he’s never bereft of female attention.
As far as that goes, the third time is the charm. Roger meets Mary, a woman with an independent streak and a job, a member of the Young Americans and later the only female member of Kenny Rogers and The First Edition.
The two marry, have two children and wind up in New Mexico where Miller is diagnosed with lung cancer. Despite Mary’s encouragement and efforts to find a healer, Miller died in 1992 at age 56.
Given the multi-generational audience, this King apparently stirred memories among the older crowd and an appreciation for genuine country music in the younger ones.